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Ecuador Dispatches, 2005


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Peter returned to the Eco-City project in Ecuador in early February, 2005. His first Dispatch arrived near the end of February.

Index of 2005 Dispatches

[Most recent dispatches at top of list]

Dispatch #4, Careers of Improvisation – Part I (7 Sept 2005)

Dispatch #3, At Last, The Hard Part (5 Sept 2005)

Dispatch #2, Land Found But Not Quite Located (3 Sept 2005)

Dispatch #1, Eco-Bahia Becomes an Adult at the Age of Six (27 Feb 2005)

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Eco-Bahia Becomes an Adult at the Age of Six

Dispatch #1, February 23, 2005
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
By Peter Berg 

On the day of the sixth anniversary of its Ecological City Declaration, Bahia de Caraquez flashed bright signals of evolving its truly own version of urban sustainability. It was eco-semana (ecology week) with events in vernacular earmarks such as a night-time Carnaval pregon (parade) with some marchers painted as earth features and animals, a cleanup of Rio Chone beach, a tour of prominent ecology projects, and a Baile Verde (Green Dance).

Falling at mid-week in the festivities, the anniversary started with an exposition by relevant non-government and private groups in the breezeway substituting for a first floor under City Hall. Arte Papel (Art Paper), the remarkable womens’ collective that makes recycled paper stationery and encompasses three separate barrios, brought ten of its two dozen members to ring tightly around a small table of its best cards, boxes and albums. Eco-club kids from nearby Fanca showed painted recycled plastic flowers. Eco-paper also showed up there and at a table for privately-owned Eco-papel which introduced this handcrafts industry locally, and on display by a brand new company from La Cruz barrio who had been unselfishly trained by Arte Papel women. (Ecuadorians are infamous imitators of successful small-scale enterprises. There is a town nearby where one person started a roadside stand selling homemade versions of archeological artifacts several years ago that is now lined on both sides of the highway with copies.  Bahia’s future may include a reputation as the Eco-paper City!)  Planet Drum’s Renee Portanova and replacement-in-training Heather Crawford exhibited saplings of native trees with identifying labels, compost made from organic wastes, and posters showing how revegetation reduces erosion, an explanation and small model of our new passive solar hot water installation at Genesis School, and even a definition of “bioregionalismo”. The newish branch of the UN volunteer-promoting organization Caring Cities boasted the most polished explanatory display. A standout for me was a simply painted fifty-five gallon steel drum set-up by the recently minted Eco-amigos group from Maria Auxiliadora barrio to show examples of their recycling and compost making efforts. With a membership of younger children from that neighborhood’s marginally employed households, this wild throng is the product of Elva, a small all-purpose storeowner who was inspired by our efforts to build a “wild park”. When I asked how it was funded Elva made a characteristically frank gesture of slapping her front pocket. Only a year old, Eco-amigos is increasingly active and even helped clean up and repair trails in the erosion abating park (named Bosque en Medio de las Ruinas) for this week’s eco-tour. Perhaps the greatest significance of Eco-amigos spontaneous occurrence is the undeniable validity it brings to popular acceptance of the ecological city idea, similar to the appearance a little over two years ago of Bahia Ecologico, a company of triciclo (three-wheeler) pedal-taxi drivers who have since been joined by two more new groups of tricicleros with “eco” in their  company names.

A “Sesion Solemne” to commemorate the anniversary was held in the Municipal Theater that afternoon.  It was typically full of surprises. To a dais comprising several city council members, the mayor, the vice-mayor, and the Captain of the Port, and an audience of about three hundred people including the Queen of Sucre County, Vladir Villagran recounted the history of founding the eco-city and implored the new officials to make it a reality. Flor-Maria Duenas followed and unexpectedly called for me to take a seat on stage with the others before recounting the successful growth of the Eco-clubs she has helped lead. Marcelo Luque gave a resounding bioregional description of this unique equatorial place and next the vice-mayor invoked Bahia’s potential as a model for the world. Then the new mayor Dr. Carlos Mendosa, who along with political leaders everywhere recently from Washington State in the US to Ukraine had survived a close election and vote count challenge, rose to state the extent of commitment for his administration. As a professional medical practitioner no one expected great familiarity with environmental ideas, but he indicated more concern and presented more specific details than the previous two mayors who served during the Ecological Declaration era. He shifted easily from Bahia’s problems to those of the world, and gave evidence of personal interest by referring to the amount of seawater that could be polluted by a single discarded battery and the decomposition time for plastic bottles. “It isn’t enough to be ecological in words alone but in deeds. I will seek to follow through with what we have said we will do and more,” was the gist. Finally, awards were given to ecology workers such as those representing an agency that makes compost and several women from Arte Papel.

During this visit I presented Mayor Mendosa with an invitation from San Francisco’s mayor to the UN World Environment Day observance there in June this year with the theme “Green Cities”. He and Patricio Tamariz, a founder of the Eco-Bahia Center for Environmental Studies, intend to attend to sign the Urban Sustainability Accords with mayors from at least a hundred of the largest world cities (see www.wed2005.org). Planet Drum is hoping to raise the travel costs for both of them since they wouldn’t be able to attend otherwise. They could attract major attention because although Bahia is rated as a small to medium size city, it is represents the greatest number of cities in the world that are in the same category.

The newly elected city council is also the greenest yet. When I addressed the group with a request to renew the original declaration by adding a point citing the 2002 Ecological City Plan as a guide, the members concurred unanimously and several made personal pleas to further enhance Bahia in ways such as reducing pollution in the river. Today I assisted Councilwoman Christina Ruperti in drafting the ordinance to create a Department of the Environment, and also consulted about revitalizing the county wide recycling program. Environment Week isn’t just a hopeful event anymore. It has just proven to be a genuinely productive time, perhaps the most productive seven days so far.

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Land Found But Not Quite Located

Dispatch #2, September 3, 2005
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
By Peter Berg 

Planet Drum Foundation's efforts to assist in transforming Bahia into an ecological city have taken a progressively more educational bent. We have had a full-time staff member as Bioregional Educational Program Manager, Kristen Lansdale, for nearly half a year. Her reports on the progress of the first twenty-five high school age students have been a continuous revelation of expanding possibilities for place-located learning. On another front, Riccardo Clemente spent last winter teaching an adult course in alternative energy, building a successful passive solar hot water heater for a local grade school with some of his students, awarding certificates of accomplishment in the name of Planet Drum, and helping them to develop a company named Bahia Aqua Caliente Solar. (He returns later this month to write a report on the installation to earn a graduate degree.)  

It seems the right time to initiate a Master of Bioregional Sustainability Program for graduate students that would last a full year. Fundamental to this program would be development of sustainable housing and farming features on a piece of land that required revegetation and restoration of native habitat. Students can initiate building, infrastructure, agriculture, revegetation, and research projects for certification while learning and working with our ecological city programs. Inexpensive land that had no previously existing structures was found and purchased earlier this year. The following is an account of the first exploratory visit.


Up at 6AM Friday (9/2/05) for horseback ride over our new land. Brought everything I thought was necessary from long-sleeved shirt and hat to water and sandwiches. Caught bus at terminal for 16 kilometer ride and sat on steps by door to look for dirt road where I'm supposed to meet guide and horses. Arrived 15 minutes before appointment at 9 and jumped on horse accompanied by "Lucho," Jacob Santos' land steward. We rode down the highway a kilometer to Quijije's (pronounced key-he-hay) farm to get permission to enter his land to take a trail to ours. Ride was straight up from there 3 kilometers according to Lucho hanging onto the horse's mane at times to avoid falling off. My "del campo" mount was extremely responsive and wise about trails and barbed wire, but not considerate of having a rider three feet above its back smashing into branches and vines. Also ate everything all the time which impeded travel. But generally alert and eager in vast contrast to burros I've ridden here.

The sixty hectares (about 150 acres) of land had obviously been used to clearcut trees for lumber ten years before. Primary seboya grass and various bushes mixed with some initial successional trees such as fruitillo still occupy large tracts. There are exceptions on the far sides of steep canyons and the tops of hills where patches of what appears to be original forest remain. The logged areas have become true jungle which is defined as impassable or nearly impassable growth. We machete-hacked a good part of the time and lost trails continually.

We weren't able to find any paths that went directly to the forested places to observe their actual condition. None went directly across the land either. We attempted to circle the whole property but only got one-quarter of the way heading north and even less to the south before running into drop-offs or steep cliffs. Exploring these places will require days of trail-blazing.

Rather than being the whole bowl that is visible from the rim, the shape of the property is like a rectangular sheet draped across the interior. The flag-shaped piece runs up to the rim on the east and halfway or so to the north, west and south. There is a ridge that bisects the property to about the center of the bowl, with small rises on all sides. Although it is mainly clay soil mixed with sand and few if any rocks there is considerable variety of terrain.  

We found and ate green tamarind fruit, saw an iguana's nest in branches of a guayacan, gathered seeds from four tree species to plant in greenhouse, and noted at least a dozen plants that obviously provide good animal feed.  

Felt confident at the end of three and half hours about first horseback ride in years so trotted and galloped back to where I originally met Lucho, caught a bus to Bahia, and have enjoyed an exhilarated floating spirit since in spite of sore legs.

To say it's rough territory is an understatement. But there are extremely positive aspects. Some hardwood trees remain throughout the cut area. It isn't hotter or more humid in the bowl  than the ridgetops. The coast is nearby so there are breezes and possible future access. There don't seem to be any permanent non-natural land deformations or pollution. It is "raw land" of the dry tropical forest, more tangled than old growth would be but manageable to the extent that one wishes to manage it. This is perfect for putting sustainable features in place, revegetating logged areas, and studying changes over future time. 

Securing the land is proving to be a challenge. Quiije is one of four neighbors and he has begun marking off his border with recently placed stakes. Since there are no survey documents or even maps this line may or may not be accurate. (The other neighboring parcels which will have similar problems.) To establish the borders a survey would need to be made and this presents more problems. Surveyors won't have a line of sight through the tangle so a tentative swath of about 2 meters circling the land would have to be cleared. Siteing this swath would be only partially informed guesswork. We are obliged to fence the entire boundary with or without a survey since there is evidence of grazing by neighboring cows and some border will have to be established. 

For this work to start while I'm here, I'll have to try to visit neighboring landowners and attempt to understand what they believe is the correct line. They are likely to be absentee so I'll have to visit their land steward tenants as well. It's going to be difficult to accomplish in two weeks before I leave, but needs to be finished if we intend to get any fencing work done before the rainy season begins roughly four months from now.

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At Last, The Hard Part

Dispatch #3, September 5, 2005
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
By Peter Berg

Yesterday (Sun.) was a breakthrough for our revegetation project. Pedro Otero, who although an agro-forestry professor previously seemed reluctant to permit non-commercial planting on his land, finally agreed to let us explore El Toro Basin for any sites where we wish to plant native trees. The problem with Otero had been that the land wasn't formally divided between five brothers who were heirs. Some of them have recently begun logging to Pedro's genuine horror and he is now insisting on divisions to be able to control at least his share.

El Toro Creek is one of the principal erosion sources in the six kilometer stretch we are addressing. The basin has no less than five streams emptying into a steep-sided, short, narrow area. With recent decades of logging the slopes and clearing pasture has come ruinous erosion along all of the entry streams and truly devastating damage to the main El Toro Creek. The banks have been gouged into perpendicular walls ten meters (30 feet) or more high. The fifteen meter (45 feet) wide stream bed where there is only a trickle if any water at this time of year is reminiscent of the desert terrain in North Africa, a main corridor of high bare clay cliffs with hallways of canyons entering at knife-edge straight angles.

All of these ninety degree surfaces will erode away, slowly with luck but in a flash if a heavy El Nino rainy period occurs. The problem for revegetation is what extent can be saved. If allowed to recede to the eventual angle of repose where gravity would finally cease allowing rain to carry soil away, the amount of eventual erosion would be millions of tons. If the banks can be held at a closer point to the edge the amount of soil lost might be reduced to about one-third of that enormous amount. Considering the disastrous consequences of massive erosion from this area for natural habitat, the town below, the highway, or most importantly, siltation of the rapidly filling Rio Chone river, eliminating two-thirds of the potential infill isn't just a nice idea, it's essential for keeping the river alive and flowing in the future.

Pedro generously drove Heather and me through most of the extent of the stream bed, showed some recent and previous logging damage, and encouraged us to pick our own spot. Because of El Toro's significance we will definitely establish a revegetation presence but have to be careful about choosing places where we can successfully demonstrate the effectiveness of various approaches and techniques. I begged off from making a decision on specific spots until we can survey the worst places later this week. Fast-growing and strong algorrobo trees will work well here. Among the other saplings we'll have available next winter rainy season, Otero stated a preference for samango and cedro, and we will oblige with those as well.

El Toro Basin is the most remote but also the most significant site we will encounter.

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Careers of Improvisation – Part I

Dispatch #4, September 7, 2005
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
By Peter Berg

When I met a journalist on the street who told me she was now working at a pharmacy I didn't immediately register what a contrast that was. It wasn't surprising then because people in Bahia change jobs fairly frequently. I walked on thinking that her upbeat personality was suited to either position. Later I thought more deeply about how often they seem to switch and the wide range of jobs undertaken and sought out some people who seemed symbolic of these tendencies. Would they tell me all of the things they had done and can do, and did they have opinions about why this situation is prevalent?

Jairo Intraigo is thirty-one and comes from a typically close-knit Ecuadorian family but goes a little further than most. He has supported his sister's two children for sixteen years since their father dropped out of the picture. They are in high school now with monthly fees and bills that consume about half of his present monthly income. Starting with cleaning up a carpentry shop on weekends when he was in high school himself, here's the surprising list of what he's done so far.

Still in high school he worked a summer on a project funded through a coastal agency by Rhode Island University to study geomorphology of the beach. It involved measuring the height of sand dunes each month.

A preference for being outside and observing natural features led to his next job over several years leading visitors for an eco-tour company to see mangroves, bird sanctuaries, and other sites in Rio Chone estuary. He also learned to make recycled paper and fashion it into stationery for the company. (Sometime after leaving this job he taught a group of unemployed women those recycling skills and they formed a successful cooperative.)

Facility at relating to strangers evolved into the assistant manager position at a hotel that catered to backpackers and other low-budget visitors. He redesigned the rooms, redecorated them, and worked out cooking and cleaning schedules. At night he bussed thirty miles away to night university classes to study business administration. Some part-time jobs at the same time included working as a guide in a national park and a seafood chef at a resort.. He also volunteered for the local ecology studies group, and as a high school girls cheerleading coach won the city championship.

After graduation he became an assistant professor at a local university teaching business administration, finance, and marketing as well as rudimentary English. He just began as a chef working every night at a new restaurant, while still living rent-free at the hotel in exchange for consulting with the staff.

Jairo thinks the country's poor economy is responsible for job insecurity, and this in turns breeds versatility. Most of his friends have two or three jobs as well. It is a point of pride that he has been able to work at things he enjoys. If he lost all of his present occupations he feels he could make a living doing several other things for which he's never received a salary: designing (clothes, furniture, graphics), and teaching hotel and restaurant skills. What he would like is that ten years from now as a full professor he receives grateful congratulations from former students who became the country's leaders and provide a lot of jobs for today's underemployed.

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